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Trains, Not Drains: New Jersey Lobbyists Set to Swamp DC

FILE - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, seen here with and his wife, is set to deliver the keynote address to the NJ Chamber of Commerce’s 80th annual trip to Washington, Feb. 16, 2017.

As President Donald Trump vows to "drain the swamp" in Washington, a swarm of 1,000 lobbyists, business owners and politicians are boarding a train from the swamps of New Jersey on Thursday for a day of lobbying.

The state Chamber of Commerce's 80th annual trip — nicknamed the "Walk to Washington" because rail riders generally pace the train's corridors schmoozing and handing out business cards — comes after a national election that hinged in part on repudiating insiders and establishment politics.

Trump, whose job approval rating is in negative territory, rose to victory in part on a promise to "drain the swamp." In his earliest days in the White House, he signed an order aimed at restricting administration officials from lobbying.

"There's no populist message on the train. It's networking on steroids," said Dale Florio, a Trenton lobbyist and a longtime Republican who backed Trump.

But Trump didn't win New Jersey where voters are set to pick Republican Gov. Chris Christie's successor in November. The two-term governor is term limited, and the event has a gravitational pull for many of the state's biggest business and political players.

Despite the lack of populist appeal, the event is a highlight of the year for many New Jersey officials.

"If I were a candidate for governor and a consultant advised me not to attend, I'd fire them," Florio said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Johnson, a former Clinton administration official, is spurning that advice. He said he's not attending and that the trip doesn't benefit the public.

"The Walk is another opportunity for lobbyists to rub elbows and curry favor with elected officials," Johnson said.

Michael Egenton, the chamber's top lobbyist, doesn't buy the swamp comparisons. He says networking is the pathway to relationships and new, better policies.

"I think the way I look at it: there always have to be safeguards to make sure you're not giving special privileges [to business interest] but at the same time having that relationship is how things get done," Egenton said.

Egenton said most of the gubernatorial candidates, including Democrats Ray Lesniak and Phil Murphy are scheduled to be on the train. Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno also is running, but is not attending because she will be serving as acting governor with Christie out of the state at the event.

Christie is set to deliver the keynote address to the gathering. Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, along with Republican U.S. Rep. Chris Smith also are set to address dinner attendees.